1. After a 14-year absence, Tiger Woods is returning to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. What do you think of Tiger’s decision to start his season in Phoenix, and what will the atmosphere be like at TPC Scottsdale with Tiger in the field?
Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Good call for Tiger and Phoenix. He’s been away far too long, though I understand why. Too many incidents, and the circus-like environment at the WMPO, weighed against calm crowds, balmy conditions and guaranteed cash in the other desert. But Phoenix fans are starved for Tiger. He’ll get crowd love, great greens, most likely good weather, decent pace of play. Really, it’s an ideal way to open the year. TPC Scottsdale is golf’s ultimate party anyway; with Tiger aboard and the Super Bowl in town, this could break the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium record for noise volume. And if the gods get crazy and Tiger and Phil are tied at the top coming down the stretch, they’ll blow the roof off the joint.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Tiger going to Phoenix is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It was going to be a big flame, anyway. Now it’s even bigger. He’ll get a great reception and, even better, probably good seats for the Super Bowl across town.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think boredom has set in. Curtis Strange got bored with his swing. All these elite golfers have OCD to a degree — Tiger’s fighting the urge here, it seems to me.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger’s game has been in varying states of disarray since his back surgery last spring. With a new golf swing in development it makes sense that he’d add some events on the road to Augusta. The scene at the par-3 16th will be as wild as ever, and I think the fans (and event organizers) will be sure to let Woods know they appreciate his return to Scottsdale. It’s going to be electric.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Hmmm. Maybe he wants to show up then miss the cut intentionally so he can catch Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime performance? If you’re into symbolism, you could see it as a sign of a looser, more relaxed Tiger, and maybe that will help him, because it doesn’t get any wilder than the atmosphere there, and the tightly coiled Tiger hasn’t been doing too well lately. I expect the scene to be the fraternity/sorority party that it always is, albeit with even more false fronts and higher stiletto heels. Should be fun to watch Tiger’s interaction (or lack thereof) with the crowd around 16.
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I’m sure it’s connected to him or Lindsey Vonn or both wanting to attend the Super Bowl. The golf tournament will be a zoo. A friend in Phoenix tells me they were already expecting the place to be packed on the weekend.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s been baffling that for so many years Tiger has talked about needing more reps but never expanded his schedule. He should play as much as possible between now and Augusta, health permitting. That week was already gonna be a sh*tshow, Tiger will just make it slightly more so.
2. At the South African Open this week, Charl Schwartzel blew a four-shot lead with five holes to play, eventually losing a playoff to journeyman Andy Sullivan. The 2011 Masters champ owns a handful of home-country wins, but he really hasn’t done much else. Who’s the biggest underachiever in golf right now?
BAMBERGER: I object to the term. What you actually do is what you achieve. You’d achieve more if you were more capable and less if you were less capable. You can say Fred Couples underachieved, given how well he hit the ball, etc. In the end, he did exactly what his ability allowed him to do. Al Geiberger could have won multiple majors. But injuries and other issues held him to one major.
SENS: Is that another way of asking who’s the best player to never win a major? For discrepancy between raw talent and accomplishments, I’m going to have to go with Sergio.
PASSOV: I might nominate Schwartzel. With that swing, and the incredible poise he showed birdieing the final four to win that Masters, I thought he was a shoo-in for top-5, multiple-wins-each-year status. Of other players who have actually accomplished something — just not enough — I’ll put Sergio Garcia next. Unfathomable amount of talent to have gone major-less and not won more big events. If Keegan Bradley doesn’t win again soon, he’s moving into my top 2.
MORFIT: Schwartzel’s post-Masters career hasn’t gone like I expected it to, given the pizzazz with which he closed out his first and only major. That said, golfers have long, long careers, and a lot can happen late in a career. Just look at Jimmy Walker and Mark O’Meara, to name two late bloomers. The underachievers are usually the ones who get injured and can’t seem to get back on track. Jamie Lovemark comes to mind.
SHIPNUCK: It is indeed disappointing how Schwartzel has failed to build on his Masters win. His buddy King Louis is just as disappointing, given that they the two of them have among the best swings in golf and fabulous short-games to boot. Sergio deserves strong consideration here, as does Dustin, and Gary Woodland. Keegan is inching into this territory, too. Seems like underachievement is going around, perhaps linked to a nasty virus known as affluenza.
RITTER: Well, it isn’t Schwartzel, who’s won titles all over the world since that Masters victory. Earning and maintaining a Tour card requires a level of excellence and consistency against the world’s best, so it’s hard to slap anyone with the underachieving label as long as they’re out there working hard to maximize their talent. Three guys I’m surprised are still winless on the PGA Tour: de Jonge, DeLaet and Overton. But I’d call them “overdue” rather than “underachieving.”
VAN SICKLE: Luke Donald has had a quiet stretch since his reign at No. 1. I’m surprised he hasn’t bounced back yet. It’s shocking that he didn’t make the last Ryder Cup team.
3. Media-friendly Rory McIlroy applauded Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to answer reporters’ questions after a playoff win Saturday night. On Twitter, McIlroy said that Lynch is “paid to play, not answer questions.” Do you agree with McIlroy or are athletes obligated to help promote their sports by talking to the media?
MORFIT: I disagree. The whole thing is a show. There’s no inherent value to society of Marshawn Lynch scoring touchdowns, just as there’s no inherent value to the Seattle Seahawks winning. Those two things exist as part of a larger entertainment spectacle, a show in which everyone has a role to play, and that includes talking to the media.
BAMBERGER: No, they are not obligated. I think Woods should actually get more credit, much more, for being as available as he is. But in general athletes should remember who pays their salaries and that all public sporting events come with a certain level of civic responsibility.
SENS: Actually, Lynch IS paid to answer questions, and he has been fined by the NFL for refusing to do so. Yeah, sure, the media can be irritating and very frequently blows things out of proportion, but athletes like Lynch and McIlroy also profit obscenely from all the attention. Tweet aside, McIlroy knows that. He understands, ultimately, how his bread gets buttered, just as he must realize that a sports star only needs to show the slightest gestures of human decency to have the press and the public eating out of his hands. Let’s not cast Lynch here as some suffering victim of a media onslaught. He’s being a pr–k. He might not like answering questions. But I guarantee you that many of those reporters don’t enjoy asking them of him either. It’s their job, they’re paid to do it. Lynch should grow up and do his too.
VAN SICKLE: It is in the athletes’ best interests to talk to the media and promote the game. In golf, they’re promoting themselves. It’s common sense but still, it’s a choice.
RITTER: It’s all up to the leagues, and I can’t think of a single professional sports governing body that doesn’t require its athletes to talk. Among its many purposes, the media is a gateway for fans to meet their heroes, and that alone makes the entire exercise worthwhile. I was a little surprised Rory sent that tweet — he’s been overwhelmingly accommodating in the media center throughout his career. Why publicly sympathize with Lynch?
PASSOV: Respectfully disagree. Personalities are why we care, as much or more as the sport itself. If I just wanted to see birdies made, I’d attend a Web.com event. Those guys are actually great. But I have no rooting interest in them. If Rory and others took Lynch’s attitude and blew off reporters who are the conduits for the rooters out there, eventually I’d stop rooting, attending, or caring, and eventually, you wouldn’t be playing for much prize money or making any endorsements.
SHIPNUCK: That was disappointing, and one of the rare times Rory can be accused of being a point-misser. Talking to reporters is part of the job, plain and simple. It is the fans who pay the salaries of pro athletes. Reporters are the fans’ representatives — we ask the questions they wish they could, and offer them a glimpse of who they are cheering for. Why does NBC clog the Olympics coverage with so many vignettes? Because when you get to know an athlete’s story you have a rooting interest. We, the media, make that possible. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of anonymous jerseys or polo shirts out there who nobody cares about.
4. While David Duval said “there is no such thing as a retired professional golfer,” he has joined the NBC golf team as an analyst. How will Duval be remembered as a player?
BAMBERGER: The glasses. He was so ahead of the curve. The ear-bend at the ’99 Ryder Cup. Shooting 59 with his shirttail coming out. Getting skinny and then returning to his normal self. A funny Nike spot. Questioning his purpose in life after winning the British Open. The Gary Smith piece in SI.
MORFIT: He’ll be remembered as a player who reached a plateau that few can even imagine, and even fewer still have ever experienced. He was there for a short time, yes, but he was there — his play circa 1999 was off-the-charts fantastic.
RITTER: Unfortunately, he probably lands in the Ian Baker-Finch group of one-time elite players who suddenly and inexplicably lost it. Like Baker-Finch, I think Duval could also be really good on TV.
SHIPNUCK: For one of the most dominant runs of golf in the post-Nicklaus era, and for a baffling demise. For a guy who was purposefully reticent and opaque during his playing days it will be interesting to see what, if anything, he has to say.
SENS: I don’t remember the exact quote, but I do recall Duval once speaking about the pressures of tournament golf, the butterflies in the belly, the glare of the spotlight, and the discomfort that came with them. It didn’t sound like he enjoyed them. Shortly after, I heard Tiger Woods answer a similar question about pressure, and he talked (as he often has) of the thrill. He lived for it. Duval never seemed to. Yes, he had some bad breaks with injuries and illness. But I can’t help thinking of him as a tremendous on-course talent who often seemed like he’d rather be somewhere else. You could argue that that speaks well of him.
PASSOV: He was a phenomenal junior, college player and pro — and then he hit a brick wall. I will remember him as a guy who hung pretty close to Tiger when Tiger was at the height of his powers, and that’s awfully good. I remember him most for that muscle-bound, arm-pumping when he holed his putt for 59 to win the Bob Hope, but not far behind are thoughts that haunt us all: what if you reach the top of the mountain, and it just doesn’t feel that great? That was Duval after his 2001 British Open victory. His subsequent introspection was refreshing, if sad.
VAN SICKLE: Duval will be remembered as an incredible talent who got to the top of the mountain and found the view unsatisfying. He had some injuries that changed his golf swing and his level of success and he discovered family life and other things that were more important than golf. He should be remembered as someone who got what he wanted out of golf, then moved on.
5. This week’s Sony Open will feature 50+ guys Vijay Singh, Kenny Perry, Fred Funk, Paul Goydos and Davis Love III. Do you think we’ll see a 50-year-old major champion in the next 10 years? Who do you think will be first to break the gray line?
RITTER: We will absolutely see a 50+ winner, and I think it will happen within the next six years. Why six? There are several guys already coming close (Jimenez, Couples, Langer), but health permitting, I could see Mickelson, currently 44, continuing to contend in majors and shocking the world by winning one at age 50. You have to admit, it would be a Phil thing to do.
VAN SICKLE: There will inevitably be an over-50 major winner. The key is finding a 50-year-old who can still putt like a 40-year-old. There aren’t a lot of those out there. Maybe Miguel Angel Jimenez.
MORFIT: I doubt anyone will break the gray line. If anything, I think the game is getting younger. Right now, for a senior to win a major, he has to first hope for an off-week by Rory, Rose, Kaymer, Adam Scott, Bubba and an array of extravagantly talented players who hit it farther and, let’s face it, are less likely to crumble mentally. Then he has to have the best week of his career. The odds of those two things happening seem remote. That said, if it’s going to happen, I’d say the best odds would be with Phil Mickelson at the 2021 Masters.
PASSOV: Say what you will about Tom Watson, but this question should have already been answered at the 2009 British Open. Fred Couples seems to contend every year at The Masters; the right over-50 player on the right course can win. 57-year-old Bernhard Langer would seem to be a threat no matter what tournament he enters. Still, I’ll go with Davis Love and that long swing with the big arc.
SHIPNUCK: Miguel Angel Jimenez is more of a threat than any of these guys — don’t forget his strong run at the 2014 Masters. His iron game remains so good he could win on the right ballpark under the right conditions.
SENS: Unlikely. The young talent pool in golf is just too strong these days. But who knows, maybe a 50-year-old Phil turns Rae’s Creek into the Fountain of Youth and gets hot for a few days.
BAMBERGER: Tom Watson, at the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews, age 65. Good putting is good enough there and it is sometimes amazing what a golfer with the red-ass and something to prove can do.
6. After a weekend of watching golf at Maui’s spectacular Kapalua course, what’s your pick for the most beautiful course in golf?
PASSOV: Gotta go with the cool, tranquil, ethereal beauty of Cypress Point Club, the Grace Kelly of golf courses.
SENS: Cypress Point is the obvious centerfold. But there are so many beautiful spots, many of them accessible to the public. In no particular order, I’m thinking of Highland Links in Nova Scotia, almost any coastal hole at Bandon Dunes, the lakeside holes at Whistling Straits, the 17th hole at Lincoln Park in San Francisco, a muni overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Farther flung, you’ve got Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. Hans Merensky in South Africa (giraffes strolling the fairways!), a zillion small-town links in Ireland and Scotland, and on.
SHIPNUCK: Pebble, obviously. When you come up the hill on the 6th fairway, revealing the sweeping vista of Stillwater Cove, Carmel Beach, Point Lobos and the churning Pacific beyond, it’s an almost religious experience. For me, anyway.
VAN SICKLE: You could hardly go wrong nominating any of the courses at the Turnberry resort in Scotland, hard along the coast, with scenic ocean views and the haunting image of the Ailsa Craig offshore.
RITTER: I’m a sucker for the ocean and feel that seaside courses belong in their own class. Kapalua is up there. A track on Lanai called Manele Golf Course has ocean views on all 18 holes and might top my list. The most beautiful landlocked course I’ve seen in person remains Augusta National, and it will be tough to knock that off the pedestal.
MORFIT: That depends on the definition of beautiful. Whistling Straits looks great on TV but is a disaster if you have to walk it. Chambers Bay is pretty in that you can see the water from every hole. Most beautiful? Cypress Point.
BAMBERGER: The last course I broke 90 on.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.